Here’s a thought experiment. Take a deep breath and hold it. Imagine that the people around you are friends from the trailer park in Alabama that, yes, you live in. You are all here in New York City, that’s where you are right now, to go on a TV talk show to tell the nation that aliens destroyed your trailer and you think the people need to know about it. Now exhale.
Did it work?
Probably not, but that’s a scenario Flip Orley pulls during his comedy shows, and when he does it, he is somehow able to turn complete strangers at a comedy club into a ragtag bag of trailer trash from Alabama, accent and everything.
Orley is a hypnotist. He’s also a comedian, a hypno-comic, if you will. His shows start with a stand-up routine, and then he asks members of the audience to join him on stage. Then, he hypnotizes them and then guides them into certain scenarios, like the one above. It’s like improv comedy.
“In fact to me it’s the purest form of improv, because what you have is a group of people on stage most of the time with, in most cases, no formal acting training,” Orley says. “But the difference between improv, and the reason I say it’s the purest form of improv, is because in that moment, they’re not acting. They’re not thinking. ‘What am I going to say next?’ In that moment, there’s this feeling that, ‘My home was destroyed by a UFO, and I’m angry, and I feel like the country needs to know about it.’ It’s all spontaneous and it’s all really natural.”
Orley is part of a centuries-old tradition of hypnotists as performers dating back to the mesmerists of the 1800s. While their cousins, magicians, might be suffering through a period of demystification, there’s still an element of wonder attached to stage hypnosis, as it’s something that can’t be explained in a two-minute YouTube video.
Some hypnotists claim to be able to be able to hypnotize anyone on stage and make them do funny things. Some, like Derren Brown, make TV shows in which they convince people on the street to give the hypnotist their wallet and keys. Orley is less aggressive in his approach. He says he doesn’t try to embarrass anyone, and he doesn’t claim to be able to control anyone’s mind on a whim. Instead he tells the audience the show is about tapping into their latent creativity, and if anyone wants to give it a shot, come up on stage. It’s important that he work the audience this way; otherwise a skeptic might volunteer and put a damper on the show.
“It’s important to me that any club I work … they make it pretty clear to the audience that the show is all about hypnosis. And then there’s sort of an early part of the show where I’m doing some comedy and explaining the show and setting it up and so by the time I ask for volunteers, typically, the people who are more predisposed to keeping an open mind come to the stage. By that point I think the audience is pretty sold on the idea of giving it a try as well, in terms of being a little bit quiet during the induction and giving me a little bit of the time that I need to make the whole thing work.”
Nowadays, everything’s consensual, but Orley got into hypnosis in a much creepier way. As a child, he says, girls would rebuke his attempts to ask them to the school dance, and his frustration led him to a book called How To Pick Up Girls With Hypnosis.
“It was a horrible book,” he recalls. “It was just a horrific experience, I was trying to hypnotize a girl just to get her to go to a dance with me in elementary school, and I was like, ‘Look into my eyes,’ and she was like, ‘You are freaking me out’ and she kicked me in the groin.
“[After] I had this run-in with this gal’s knee, I think most people, at this point, would have said enough with that. And yet I became really intrigued. I thought to myself, ‘This book is garbage, but this stuff has been around forever.’”
He swore never to use his powers for evil again. But you’ll only know for sure if you check out the show.